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 Post subject: Edward Yang
PostPosted: Wed Jul 30, 2008 9:31 pm 
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Edward Yang (1947-2007)
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"The bombs we plant in each other are ticking away"


FILMOGRAPHY

1982 Desires / Expectations (episode of In Our Time (Guang yin du gu shi))

1983 That Day, on the Beach (Hai tan de yi tian)

1984 Taipei Story (Qing mei zhu ma)

1986 The Terroriser (Kong bu fen zi)

1991 A Brighter Summer Day (Gu ling jie shao nian sha ren shi jian)

1994 A Confucian Confusion (Du li shi dai)

1996 Mahjong (Ma jiang)

2000 Yi-Yi Criterion


FORUM RESOURCES

Edward Yang on DVD


RECOMMENDED WEB RESOURCES

Senses of Cinema profile

Exiles in Modernity- Critical overview by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Posthumous appreciations on Green Cine

Village Voice obit

Cinematheque Ontario programme notes

Yi Yi: Guardian interview


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 30, 2008 10:13 pm 
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I'll try to crash-start this thread with film-by-film comments over the next couple of weeks.

DESIRES

Yang's first film as director originally appeared as the second episode of the portmanteau film In Our Time, generally acknowledged as the first film of the Taiwanese New Wave. The project was commissioned by Wu Nien-jen, the third 'father' of the New Wave, who would go on to write several films for his colleagues, including Hou's epochal City of Sadness, and to star as the father N.J. in Yi Yi. Unsurprisingly, this half-hour short lacks the complexity and subtlety of his mature features, but it's an extremely impressive first film, nevertheless, particularly in the delicacy with which it traces the development of its adolescent female protagonist.

Hsiao-fen lives with her older sister and mother. When they take in a new lodger, an unspoken infatuation blossoms. Yang elaborates the slight story in a series of short vignettes separated by fades to black, several of the episodes being purely visual storytelling set to music.

As is often the case with the first works of major directors, Desires proves most interesting as fertile ground for a kind of auteurist scavenger hunt. You can spot early instances of Yang separating the soundtrack from the image, structuring sequences around totemic props (in this case, a bicycle), or exploring with unusual specificity, without the usual baggage of family melodrama, the nature of sibling relationships (a key element in all his features bar Mahjong). Desires' black-bordered episodic structure would be applied with greater formality to A Confucian Confusion.

The film's relationship to Yang's only other period film, A Brighter Summer Day, is revealing. It's set in the late sixties, and has something of the languid, lyrical feel of Hou Hsiao-hsien's films of the recent past. While the Vietnam War rages on the television, the Beatles are in the air, occupying roughly the same space in this film as Elvis would in A Brighter Summer Day. Hsiao-fen, dressed in her crisp school uniform, can easily be seen as the prototype for Ming in that film, and, ultimately, for the lovelorn, conflicted Ting-Ting in Yi Yi.

In Our Time was available (and may still be) in a really awful Taiwanese DVD, which is the only way I've seen Desires. If you can find it cheap and you're a Yang fan, go ahead, but be warned: poor sub-VHS transfer of a bad print with burned-in and sometimes illegible subs.


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 7:11 pm 
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THAT DAY, ON THE BEACH

Edward Yang's debut feature was, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Boys from Fengkuei, the first major work of the Taiwanese New Wave. It's a wildly ambitious first film, a nearly three-hour look at the role of women in contemporary Taiwan, told through an extremely complex, unsignalled flashback structure (including flashbacks within flashbacks). It's surely Yang's most obviously audacious film in terms of structure, but it's far from his most sophisticated: he'd subsequently achieve much more profound effects with much more devious and oblique means. In terms of his feature output, this film is surely his weakest, but for almost any other filmmaker it would be a career-best.

Part of what is so astonishing about the film is how much Yang bites off and manages to chew: it's a family epic; an old-fashioned woman's picture (framed by an intimate conversation between two women, related through women as focal characters, concerned with women's issues, fuelled by multiple costume and hairstyle changes for its star Sylvia Chang); a new-fangled story of a woman's personal growth; a tricksy Resnaisian structural exercise in memory and flashback (decipherable in part thanks to Chang's compulsive makeovers); a critique of contemporary Taiwanese society; and an early-80s stylebook (see above). Oh, and it's a mystery thriller of sorts.

In Europe, Jia-li seeks out Li, the former girlfriend of her brother Jia-sen, who had been cast aside in favour of an arranged marriage. Li is now a successful concert pianist. The two haven't seen one another for fifteen years or so. They start talking about their shared past, but gradually the focus shifts to Jia-li and her husband De-wei, who, it transpires, drowned in mysterious circumstances during a period of marital estrangement. Through a mosaic of flashbacks, we learn of the couple's meeting through mutual friends, De-wei's troubled business career, its impact on the marriage, their estrangement, and his disappearance on a beach. The film continually circles around the beach where he was last seen: early, happy visits; his morose nighttime vigil; the long search for his body. An empty jar of anti-depressants bearing his name is found in the sand, but we don't know if they belonged to another man, or if he dropped them there some time before his disappearance. The fate of De-wei, and the reasons behind it, are the big mystery that occupies the centre of the film, but that film remains far more about Jia-li and the other women in her life (Li and former schoolfriend Hsin-hsin, who gets to articulate the film's feminist themes most directly) than about the absent protagonist.

The film's structure allows for some effective narrative sleight-of-hand. The De-wei story can remain suspended without resolution by continually circling back and darting away, and the film starts out (for a good half hour) as apparently the story of Jia-sen and Li. We're then so thoroughly immersed in the story of Jia-li and De-wei for two hours that we nearly forget that initial, teasing alternative focus, until Yang returns to that thread in a bravura sequence, impressionistic like nothing else we've seen, at the close of the film. It's a bold, beautiful move that gives the film added depth and balance (as well as being extremely poignant).

That Day, on the Beach was not only Yang's first feature, it was also the first film shot by Christopher Doyle, of Wong / Zhang / Van Sant fame. His work here is, unsurprisingly, much less flamboyant than his later films, but there are some clear indications of what was to come, especially in some moody sunset beach scenes, gutsily intimate handheld domestic confrontations (shades of Happy Together), candy-coloured party scenes and that surprising final montage of bleached-out close-ups with Jia-sen.

The film has its flaws. It's a strong performance, but ultimately Sylvia Chang doesn't quite have the range to completely convince me about Jia-li and carry such a sprawling film. She's on screen for just about the whole film, and we examine her from so many different angles, but she doesn't 'add up' as a complete person for me the way that Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Chin and Chang Chen do in Taipei Story and A Brighter Summer Day (the only other Yang films with this degree of focus on a central character). While the ridiculous array of period hairstyles are an entertaining (and useful) conceit, they often seem to be doing the acting for her (i.e. we can tell where a particular scene fits into the underlying narrative more by its surface trappings than by the details of her performance and a deeper conception of her character's evolution).

The film is also much more conventionally narrated - depite the fancy structure - than any other Yang film. With his next film he'd master an extremely economic way of conveying important narrative and emotional information in purely visual terms, allowing for the amazing conciseness of his extraordinarily complex, multi-layered stories. This film, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly dialogue-driven. Which is sort of fair enough, being a first film juggling so many big ideas and such a detailed narrative. It's not so much a flaw, as a contrast to the director's later practice, but it does make this probably his slowest film, easily his most 'bloated' in terms of the ratio of content to running time, though it still probably squeezes into 165 minutes what you'd expect from three or four other films.


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 04, 2008 9:42 pm 
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Wow, zedz, great reviews and please keep them coming. Having only been able to see the excellent Yi Yi I'm anxiously awaiting the rest Edward Yang's films to be given the proper treatment on DVD. In the meantime, your writing's a great appetizer.


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 05, 2008 1:07 am 
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TAIPEI STORY

Although it tends to get overshadowed by Yang's three acknowledged masterpieces (The Terroriser, A Brighter Summer Day, Yi Yi), Taipei Story is pretty much a perfect film, and one of the greatest of the 1980s. Any mild teething troubles that might retrospectively be read into That Day, on the Beach are by now long gone, and he's now telling extremely subtle and complex stories with an incredible mix of registers and immense formal control.

It used to be obligatory to peg Yang in the 80s as a disciple of Antonioni, but Taipei Story is the only film that really deserves that comparison, with its big modernist architectural set pieces: characters reflected in mirror glass (and vice versa) or peering through venetian blinds, scenes played out in long shot on the tiers of a skyscraper's atrium, an intimate encounter dwarfed by the screen-filling spectacle of an elaborate, pulsating neon Fuji sign behind the characters. But unlike Antonioni, the characters and relationships are not as stylised as the settings.

It's his most narratively focussed film, looking very closely at a couple (Lon and Chin) who are gradually being dragged apart by opposing cultural forces, abetted by their own apathy. Lon looks to the past (his former glory days as a baseball star, old friends, family ties); Chin looks ahead (Taipei's business boom, the younger generation represented by her sister Ling's gang). The common ground between them steadily erodes and allows tragedy to creep up on them. Escape to America seems to be the only way to avoid (or defer) separation, but the calls of traditional obligation put paid to even that. What works so brilliantly in this film is that it's not 'about' the disintegrating relationship: that's more like collateral damage, the irrevocable but unconscious result of small, selfish decisions that snowball out of control in the absence of positive corrective actions. For those in a relationship, this is all too scary and true (though generally the consequences of mutual neglect aren't quite so disastrous).

The film is operating on several levels at once, and Lon and Chin's fragmenting personal relationship comes to stand in for the historical and social forces impacting on Taipei in the mid-eighties. Understated, but clear enough, is the role America plays in defining the contradictory dreams and desires of the couple. Despite the big themes lurking just below the surface, however, Yang's attention to character and locale is so acute that this subtext never compromises the human element, and the film quietly, obliquely builds to a powerfully tragic climax.

Hou Hsiao-hsien (who appeared fleetingly in That Day, on the Beach as one of De-wei's business colleagues) is brilliant as world-weary Lon, passive and apathetic for much of the film but convincingly pissed-off when he gets pushed just too far. Hou also, reportedly, mortgaged his house to help finance the film. Yang reciprocated by appearing in Hou's A Summer at Grandpa's and writing music for it. Tsai Chin is just as good as his alienated partner, getting across both the tough professional shell of the modern business woman and the insecurity behind those dark glasses.

This film also provides a blueprint for much of Yang's later work. He's one of the very few filmmakers to address the emotional life of the workplace, how professional frustration can sting like personal betrayal, and this is a theme he explores intensely in all his later films. Here, there's the amazing slap in the face of Chin's first meeting with her new bosses from Kuo-shen Inc. (very subtly enhanced by the film's sole, almost subliminal flashback / flashforward). Yang's appalled analysis of the way that traditional Chinese values impact on modern life is also present and correct. This theme runs through all of his films, but is most overt in A Confucian Confusion. There are also visual ideas that would be followed up in A Brighter Summer Day (the momentary blackout in the nightclub anticipating that film's climactic battle); the interweaving of incongruous comedy (the best gag being the first appearance of Kuo-Shen Inc. en masse - the boss is the one with the glasses) that would reach some kind of insane climax in the moodswings of Mahjong and settle down in Yi Yi.

The English title references Ozu (can anybody tell us what the Chinese title Qing mei zhu ma means?), and if this is Yang's most Antonioniesque film, it's also probably his most Ozuesque, specifically in its sequences of 'pillow shots' that provide transitions between scenes. Yang is extremely sensitive to the power of objects, and at his best and deepest constructs narratives for key props that are as detailed and expressive as those of his characters (think of the flashlight, radio and knife in A Brighter Summer Day), so these privileged moments with inanimate objects are more than just local colour. My favourite such sequence involves building facades at night, illuminated and animated by the headlights of passing cars.

The influence of Japan also hangs heavily over the characters in terms of plot (almost, but not quite, as heavy as that of America), an idea that would be further explored in A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi. The thread of the old girlfriend coming back from Japan in the latter film is actually borrowed from Taipei Story (as is the actress embodying the character, Su-Yun Ko), as Lon's rendezvous with Gwan mirrors Chin's half-hearted, fateful infidelity with the biker.

Best of all is the subtlety, economy and elegance of the storytelling. Yang is really starting to fire on all cylinders in this department, stripping out conventional exposition and instead getting across important plot points through accumulated details. Early in the film, when Lon and Chin visit Chin's father (whose business troubles will prove to be important to the film's plot and themes), the way in which Chin handles a dropped spoon expresses everything we need to know about her relationship with her father. About an hour later we get additional information from an unanticipated source that fleshes this out, but everything is already contained in that gesture. Similarly, at the end of the film Lon's fate is conveyed not so much by the brutal shot of bloodstained pavement (which on its own would be ambiguous), but by the manner in which a character we've never seen before lights his cigarette.

Both of these shots show just how detailed and organic Yang's conception of character and plot are. Neither one is there to serve the other. Behaviour is story, not merely a means of delivery for it. I also love how Yang indicates the passage of time in the film through a Marilyn calendar on the apartment wall. Nobody ever refers to it, it's not a functional prop in any conventional sense, but it nevertheless provides meaningful information for those with eyes to see it.

A completely mature masterpiece, but hold onto your hats: Yang's only just started.


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 05, 2008 9:49 pm 
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zedz wrote:
can anybody tell us what the Chinese title Qing mei zhu ma means?

"Green plum, bamboo horse", an idiomatic term for (according to this, anyway) "the innocent affection between a boy and a girl in their childhood" -- which in context seems rather more bitter than the vague English title, and arguably shifts the emphasis to boot.

Incidentally, where did you see That Day, on the Beach? Bootlegs have been floating around for awhile, but they seem to be sourced from a Cantonese-dubbed version, so I've been leery of taking the plunge (although I'm aware the Mandarin version is technically "dubbed" as well, as apparently were all Taiwanese films before A City of Sadness).


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 06, 2008 7:11 am 
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The Fanciful Norwegian wrote:
zedz wrote:
can anybody tell us what the Chinese title Qing mei zhu ma means?

"Green plum, bamboo horse", an idiomatic term for (according to this, anyway) "the innocent affection between a boy and a girl in their childhood" -- which in context seems rather more bitter than the vague English title, and arguably shifts the emphasis to boot.

Thanks for that. Seems a little mysterious or arch (given the absence of both innocent affection and youth with the central couple). I'm pretty sure "Taipei Story" is Yang's title. Can't remember specifically, but most Taiwanese films from this period are titled in English on the print (e.g. All the Youthful Days, A Brighter Summer Day)

Quote:
Incidentally, where did you see That Day, on the Beach? Bootlegs have been floating around for awhile, but they seem to be sourced from a Cantonese-dubbed version, so I've been leery of taking the plunge (although I'm aware the Mandarin version is technically "dubbed" as well, as apparently were all Taiwanese films before A City of Sadness).

Archival 35mm print. Ditto for all of these, for instance:

THE TERRORIZER

One of the greatest films of the 1980s, Yang's cool pseudo-thriller lurks in the shadows of Godard more than those of Antonioni (but there's still a fantastic sensitivity to alienated urban spaces and places), and it's a seemingly looser, more unruly film than the precise Taipei Story. The appearance of unruliness is carefully contrived, however: this film is incredibly carefully constructed.

There are three discrete plot strands:
1) a young photographer breaks up with his girlfriend after stealing shots of a couple of young criminals escaping from a police shootout and becoming obsessed with the woman he obliquely rescues.
2) This young woman (the White Chick) returns to her mother's apartment and is locked in, where she amuses herself by wreaking havoc on the man who gave her gang away to the police by making prank phone calls.
3) A downtrodden scientist makes the most of an opportunity at work when his section chief dies; meanwhile, at home, his wife, starved for inspiration in her stifling marriage, faces writer's block. One day, the White Chick calls her up. . .

This is only the start of the intricate story, but I don't want to give too much away. That phone call, however, has extraordinary, catastrophic repercussions.

In today's film climate multi-stranded narratives are all over the place (in more ways than one), but they're largely spoilt for me by an oppressive, lazy overreliance on McFate to get all the ironies in order (e.g. The Edge of Heaven and its post-Kieslowski ilk). What's most impressive about The Terrorizer is its utter absence of coincidence. The cause and effect for every action is impeccably accounted for, so when Character A finally runs into Character F at Location C, there's the satisfying understanding of all the tiny details that have brought this to pass, not just the dull, ho-hum click of X happening because the author says it needs to. Yang's overarching method is revealed in miniature in several sequences, as when the writer wife goes to visit an old friend at his new offices on a sunny day, but her entry into the building is blocked by an unexplained, very localised sunshower. In the following scene, upstairs, she opens a window in her friend's new office and we can see, reflected in the tilted glass, a window washer in his cradle, thus accounting for the previous shower. Every effect in this film has its recoverable cause; everything is spatially and logically related. Some event might at first appear coincidental - the writer turning up on the photographer's doorstep, say - but figuring out how she got there sheds light on the whole world of the film.

I might have exagerrated before: there is a single coincidence in the film, but it's not one that has any bearing on the plot. It's the shot early in the film when the scientist drives past the White Chick. This is the only time when any of the characters meet without motivation, but it functions more as a reassurance on Yang's part to the viewer that, yes, all of these disparate threads are going to be tied up eventually (and it occurs at a time when we don't even really know who these characters are). The other big exception to this impeccable causality is the film's violent denouement, but this is, of course, no exception, since
[Reveal] Spoiler:
this is all the futile fantasy of the scientist at the moment of his death.

It's very hard to talk about the beauty of this film's construction without giving away a lot of the fun of viewing it, but one of the things I love most about it is how its meticulousness makes the big cinematic effects all the more rewarding. When the White Chick sneaks into a darkened room, and the light turns on to reveal her form silhouetted against a gigantic photomontage of her face, it's a visual wow, but it's also a narrative wow, because we realise how and why that montage got there and how devious the plotting has been to deliver this character to this place at this moment in order to grant us an aesthetic coup. And then Yang delivers a further coup when the windows are opened and the giant face gets to flutter in the breeze.

Stylistically, this film is much more diverse than the comparatively classical Taipei Story. The editing style seems to me more muscular than Yang's other films, somewhere between Pasolini's percussive, disorienting cutting and late-60s Godard's montage of objects. The film begins with a great blocky montage of disparate elements that gradually cohere into a story (empty streets with the sound of sirens, a body on the road, the photographer grabbing his camera, a hand holding a gun poking out a window and firing a shot). Later in the same sequence we get the film's first instances of direct eye-contact with the camera (the police chief addresses the photographer as if he were us, and vice versa), interspersed with subtle first-person footage (the photographer's view of the White Chick, a camera-eye without the obvious cues). Yang had briefly toyed with this kind of direct camera address in That Day, on the Beach when locals spoke about De-wei's disappearance as if they were being interviewed for the local news, but Yang makes much subtler and more interesting use of the trope here. It's at its most powerful in the big dramatic scene in which the writer tells her husband exactly what's wrong with their marriage. It's a monologue delivered directly to camera, but its real power comes from the way in which the actress spends almost the entirety of the speech not meeting the gaze of the camera, and by implication of her husband - a brilliantly acted and conceived scene.

Looking at Yang's films again, I'm also intrigued by the few traces of influence he's left in the work of other filmmakers. I noticed Hou making great use in Flight of the Red Balloon of Yang's technique of shooting significant action through or in reflection, though Hou has always shared Yang's sense of the added power of pulling back rather than moving in for emotional effect. The Terrorizer probably marks the pinnacle of Yang's use of this reflected distanciation, though he'd use it to breathtaking effect in Yi Yi. Actually, glancing recently at The Ice Storm suggested that Ang Lee had also learnt something about this from Yang.

Hong Sang-soo may well have adopted his custom of cutting directly to dream or fantasy sequences (thus concealing or making ambiguous their status) from The Terrorizer, which makes particularly effective use of this technique. And even Wong Kar-wai, whose work doesn't resemble Yang's in many ways, must surely have been taking notes during the fabulous 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' montage here (given the Doyle connection, it's unlikely that Wong was not aware of Yang's work). The White Chick's mother comes home and puts on her old Platters LP. 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' starts to play and plays through to its end over a gorgeous nocturnal associative montage of the mother, the White Chick, the photographer and his girlfriend, and the girlfriend's destructive rage at the photographer's obsession over his images of the White Chick, to end, at dawn, with a red lamp swinging mid-frame in time to the song's final climactic bars and the girlfriend turning to stare into the camera with hurt, furious eyes. A stunning sequence which wordlessly advances the stories of four individual characters while also achieving the kind of wonderfully sensual blend of images and music in which Wong would later specialise.

Yang is one of the few filmmakers to thoroughly explore the expressive potential of the soundtrack, conveying off-screen action through sound or layering different narrative threads in sound and image. A particularly brilliant example in this film is the sequel to the above passage, when the photographer's girlfriend attempts suicide. The (again, wordless, with purely visual storytelling) shots recording her action are accompanied by what we assume to be narration of her suicide note, but as it progresses, this narration becomes less like writing and more like a one-sided conversation, and the question of who she's addressing arises, then we cut to the White Chick talking on the phone, and we realise that we haven't even got the right voice - and then we realise that the context is all wrong too. This isn't a genuine cry for help, it's a hoax cruelly perpetrated on some unknown innocent (and us), and she abruptly hangs up. Again, with dazzling economy in the course of two minutes or less, we've driven one storyline to a kind of provisional resolution while advancing another and providing new understandings of the personalities of two major characters. And the film is full of examples of such inventive and economic storytelling. When the film's two male leads finally meet, their encounter is completely elided, but the information that passes between them is summarised in about twenty seconds by a silent montage of still photos (which we've previously seen being taken) and one moving image flashback. Something of a spoiler alert, but there's also the smart way in which Yang uses a gunshot to fuse two levels of reality together and drive the film to its real conclusion.


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Thanks zedz for your notes on these films; I may get to watch That Day on the Beach soon and I anticipate it even more now. Based on one viewing The Terrorizers struck me as the least of the Yang I've seen, mainly because the convoluted structure seemed flashy and derivative--it felt like Yang hadn't fully figured out what he wanted to do with the story and tried to cover up his uncertainty with these flourishes, suffering a bit under the sense of being part of a "New Wave" and not quite separating his gifts from the influences of the French/Japanese movements. (The minor quibbles I have with Taipei Story, certainly a great movie, also have to do with it being too much under the spell of Antonioni and other Euro ennui masters.) However your notes certainly make want to watch and evaluate it anew. Incidentally, I wonder what you make of the final shot, which I took at first to be a much too literal symbol of disgust and dismay.

[spoiler]A few days after I watched it, though, it occurred to me that the novelist's vomiting might also mean she's pregnant, suggesting that she is finally able to start the family with her lover that she couldn't with her husband.[/spoiler]
I don't think I've seen anyone else mention this possibility, though it would change the final tone quite a bit and make it guardedly optimistic; what do you think?


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vivahawks wrote:
Thanks zedz for your notes on these films; I may get to watch That Day on the Beach soon and I anticipate it even more now. Based on one viewing The Terrorizers struck me as the least of the Yang I've seen, mainly because the convoluted structure seemed flashy and derivative--it felt like Yang hadn't fully figured out what he wanted to do with the story and tried to cover up his uncertainty with these flourishes, suffering a bit under the sense of being part of a "New Wave" and not quite separating his gifts from the influences of the French/Japanese movements. (The minor quibbles I have with Taipei Story, certainly a great movie, also have to do with it being too much under the spell of Antonioni and other Euro ennui masters.) However your notes certainly make want to watch and evaluate it anew.

I think The Terrorizer certainly pulls away from those other New Waves more than Taipei Story managed to, and partly because I can't think of anybody from the French or Japanese New Waves who addresses narrative in the same way or with the same seriousness (this also applies to Taipei Story, of course: there's more happening in that film than in Antonioni's entire trilogy - which isn't a value judgement on either part of the equation).

There are plenty of New Wave filmmakers who explored new ways of telling stories, in many brilliant ways, but few who were so preoccupied with narrative efficiency and compression: so many of Yang's stylistic innovations can be viewed as narrative problem-solving (how do I tell two unrelated stories simultaneously? how do I get these characters from point A to point B as swiftly as possible without cheating?). But they're all films which only really come alive in this dimension on re-viewing and re-re-viewing. I was lucky enough way back when to fluke a second viewing of The Terrorizer before I saw any other Yang, and the film was so different - much more substantial and much less 'flashy' (the coolness of some of those effects were what made me want to see it again, however, so I'm not knocking them) - that I was bowled over. (More on this when I get to A Brighter Summer Day).

Quote:
Incidentally, I wonder what you make of the final shot, which I took at first to be a much too literal symbol of disgust and dismay.

[spoiler]A few days after I watched it, though, it occurred to me that the novelist's vomiting might also mean she's pregnant, suggesting that she is finally able to start the family with her lover that she couldn't with her husband.[/spoiler]
I don't think I've seen anyone else mention this possibility, though it would change the final tone quite a bit and make it guardedly optimistic; what do you think?

That's quite possible. It hadn't occurred to me, but it's what the person I saw it with recently thought as well. It's such a pointed closing action that "disgust and dismay", particularly after such an artfully constructed final sequence, does seem a false note to go out on, particularly when you consider that [spoiler]what sparks her physical reaction is a 'supernatural' event - her visceral intuition of her husband's fate - similar to the metaphysical grace note that allows Ting-Ting to come to terms with her guilt at the end of Yi Yi. And vomiting isn't the most obvious reaction to intuiting that your husband's blown his brains out.[/spoiler]
Your reading does chime nicely with the guarded optimism of the endings of A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong - the latter being very much snatched from the jaws of despair and cynicism - and it also ties in with some key past events in the characters' lives.

EDIT: Processing your suggestion further, I think Yang might be being even more devious and ingenious than either of us thought:
[spoiler]The edit on the gunshot suggests that the wife has been awakened by the 'psychic shockwave' of her husband's death, which requires a metaphysical reading (which, as shown by Yi Yi, Yang is capable of providing), and her vomiting is a visceral reaction to that knowledge. However, if you read the action as morning sickness, the only evidence for the metaphysical reading is the gunshot cut, which, after all, is just (literally) an editorial imposition. There's also a completely pragmatic reading available: that she's been awakened not by any fateful intuition, but by the wave of nausea that causes her to throw up, and the 'metaphysical' play is just that, a structural twist creating this nice concluding ambiguity (while also signalling the elegant optimistic resolution you suggest). Does that make sense?[/spoiler]


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 08, 2008 7:58 pm 

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zedz wrote:
There are plenty of New Wave filmmakers who explored new ways of telling stories, in many brilliant ways, but few who were so preoccupied with narrative efficiency and compression: so many of Yang's stylistic innovations can be viewed as narrative problem-solving (how do I tell two unrelated stories simultaneously? how do I get these characters from point A to point B as swiftly as possible without cheating?). But they're all films which only really come alive in this dimension on re-viewing and re-re-viewing. I was lucky enough way back when to fluke a second viewing of The Terrorizer before I saw any other Yang, and the film was so different - much more substantial and much less 'flashy' (the coolness of some of those effects were what made me want to see it again, however, so I'm not knocking them) - that I was bowled over. (More on this when I get to A Brighter Summer Day).

I'm not sure how your examples of problem solving (simultaneous stories, swift trajectories) are that different from narrative efficiency and compression. Can you elaborate on that? I do like your point that narrative means more in itself to Yang's films that to many of the old New Wave filmmakers--Resnais is probably the closest in terms of handling it with similar seriousness, as you call it. I've be able to see all these movies only once, but Taipei Story and, especially, A Brighter Summer Day have an impact and lucidity on first viewing that Terrorizers seems to lack; given its complexity I can see how it might require multiple viewings to get it.

zedz wrote:
Processing your suggestion further, I think Yang might be being even more devious and ingenious than either of us thought:
[spoiler]The edit on the gunshot suggests that the wife has been awakened by the 'psychic shockwave' of her husband's death, which requires a metaphysical reading (which, as shown by Yi Yi, Yang is capable of providing), and her vomiting is a visceral reaction to that knowledge. However, if you read the action as morning sickness, the only evidence for the metaphysical reading is the gunshot cut, which, after all, is just (literally) an editorial imposition. There's also a completely pragmatic reading available: that she's been awakened not by any fateful intuition, but by the wave of nausea that causes her to throw up, and the 'metaphysical' play is just that, a structural twist creating this nice concluding ambiguity (while also signalling the elegant optimistic resolution you suggest). Does that make sense?[/spoiler]

Yes, that sounds about right. I should have said that this additional interpretation complicates rather than changes the tone: it's clear that the metaphysical reading is much more obvious than the pragmatic one, and in spite of its jarring nature I think it's more generally suitable (after all, 3/4 of the primary characters are in bad places). That it's pretty vague and generalized is appropriate since it reflects the overarching disillusionment and pessimism that permeates the movie. Meanwhile the pragmatic interpretation gives you a little hope, but it's very personalized and ambiguous--as Yang sees it, there aren't any systemic solutions to the problems posed by modernity, only a possibility of escape for individuals willing to force the issue. In this way the double reading sums up all the games and jumps of interpretation (literalized in the gunshot cut) the audience has been playing all along, an in-joke or easter egg after all the misdirections of the last two hours. Anyways, I may be reading too much into this, but it does make me want to rewatch it even more. Also looking forward to your thoughts on A Brighter Summer Day--I'm not sure I can put into words how amazing this is. When I saw it I wandered around afterwards in a daze for weeks, blathering incoherently; I'm amazed the men in the white coats didn't lock me up then, would have been a golden opportunity for them and an unquestionable public service.


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vivahawks wrote:
I'm not sure how your examples of problem solving (simultaneous stories, swift trajectories) are that different from narrative efficiency and compression.

I haven't thought it out that deeply, but the distinction I'd make is between efficiency and compression as virtues in their own right (i.e. even a simple and straightforward narrative can be told economically, or more economically) and instances, as in much of Yang, where techniques and strategies need to be developed in order to fit the narrative material into the filmic form. A Confucian Confusion almost seems like a technical challenge (how much plot can you cram into a two-hour film without recourse to conventional exposition), but A Brighter Summer Day may be the ultimate example. Even at four hours, the amount of information recoverable from the film is insane (nearly forty significant characters; multiple distinct spheres of Si'r's life colliding, each with their own themes, timelines and narratives and each interacting with one another). Yang could have delivered that narrative material in a more traditional form, but the resulting film could have run for days, so commercial realities forced him to find a four-hour form (and a three-hour one!) that could contain his story.

Quote:
Also looking forward to your thoughts on A Brighter Summer Day--I'm not sure I can put into words how amazing this is. When I saw it I wandered around afterwards in a daze for weeks, blathering incoherently; I'm amazed the men in the white coats didn't lock me up then, would have been a golden opportunity for them and an unquestionable public service.

I'm afraid I'm no match for Yang in terms of narrative compression, so tackling so magnum an opus will probably take a few posts, unless I want to go for a forum record!


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I've been enjoying your posts zedz and looking forward to your post on A Brighter Summer Day, which I've rewatched in preparation! I completely agree about the multiple threads of the film (though I've only seen the three hour version) - I remember being rather confused in the first hour with just the sheer amount of characters at the school, the second hour with the introduction and departure of Honey provided an excellent handle on how the gang world worked and then the final hour brought everything together masterfully with the focus on the impact on the home and the wider, adult world of politics, society and religion. But the amazing thing is that these are not considered discrete elements but the school gang, and the 'gang' gangs all build in complexity during the final 'home' section. Elements introduced in one section inform others or cause characters to act differently due to these influences, something which characters present in only one 'world' miss and misunderstand. A heartbreaking masterpiece even in a truncated version.

If you'd like, zedz, I can post a couple of screencaptures from the VHS I've got to illustrate some of the points you make - I particularly like the early romantic meeting between Si'r and Ming at the doctor's office being played out in reflections in the veneer of the painted door!

And that final shot over the end credits...


Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Aug 10, 2008 9:05 am, edited 1 time in total.

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colinr0380 wrote:
If you'd like, zedz, I can post a couple of screencaptures from the VHS I've got to illustrate some of the points you make - I particularly like the early romantic meeting between Si'r and Ming at the doctor's office being played out in reflections in the veneer of the painted door!

And that final shot over the end credits...

That'd be great, Colin. I don't know exactly what I'll be focussing on yet, but that shot of Ming and Si'r in the door will definitely rate a mention, as will the shot of the girl fleeing the schoolroom at the beginning and the blacked out gang battle illuminated by glancing torchlight. I'm also interested in looking at the differences between the two versions, so you can correct my fuzzy memories of the shorter one.

Getting back to what I was trying to articulate above, I've thought of a better example that directly relates to The Terrorizer.

Towards the end of the film, when the photographer calls up the scientist to tell him what he knows, the 'script' for that phone conversation is the same as the one for the earlier phone call between the White Chick and the writer. At one level, this is an authorial irony, and most screenwriters would leave it at that, but Yang's cause-and-effect rule requires not only that the repeated dialogue be logically plausible, but that it's the most likely conversation under the circumstances.

And moreover, that first phone call is also meticulously set up, even though it's the only random act in the film and most film scripts would let it lie as random malice. Instead, Yang establishes the reason for the White Chick's phone pranks (revenge against a particular person) and the opportunity for doing so (her being locked in), and shows us (wordlessly) the moment when the idea of taking this course of action first occurs to her and the means by which she comes to make this particular call to this particular person.

Although they're thematically very close (hence the repeated dialogue), the context and motivation for each phone call is completely different, even antithetical, yet the detail of that conversation has its own separate motivation in each case (i.e. the need to arrange a physical meeting).

You just need to look at the way almost any other film is plotted to see how different Yang's approach is to narrative, and the extra legwork it requires to make this approach work in a two-hour film.

A recent film that's received a degree of acclaim for its writing, In Bruges, is an example of the far more common approach of just underwriting everything as 'fate' or 'irony': every major character happens to end up in the same place at the same time, with only perfunctory motivation, and the climax of the film oh-so-conveniently evokes a significant previous event. In this film, the mere fact of foreshadowing and acknowledging an outrageous coincidence (e.g. seeing the actor appear earlier in a particular costume and pointing out in dialogue the shoddy excuse for him wearing that too-particular costume) seems to count as 'motivation' - the old "I used to fly 'copters in 'Nam" line conveniently vomited out ten minutes before the hero has to fly one "for real". Personally, this kind of thing drives me up the wall, but probably only because I've seen how much better it is when it's avoided.


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A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY - Intro

Until I started posting on this forum, I always considered the question of 'greatest films' somewhat ridiculous and pointless, and dodged any such enquiries assiduously. Sure, I had a group of films that were personally very important to me, but reconciling that with objective value seemed awkward and generally beside the point. However, various discussions here, and the 'lists project' in general (particularly my own surprise at my initial inability to engage with it) led me to appreciate the discipline of being aggressively subjective in approaching such tasks - or, alternatively, viewing the illusion of objectivity as the enemy.

Following that subjective approach to its extreme, I realised that, by one form of reckoning, A Brighter Summer Day was the greatest film I'd ever seen. According to different criteria, other films might come out on top: Mirror in terms of long-term evolving relationship with a particular film; The Colour of Pomegranates in terms of a transformative epiphany. Yang's film tops my personal list in terms of it being the occasion for the greatest filmgoing experience I've ever had.

It began with The Terrorizer, which I went to see at a late 80s film festival screening. It was the first film festival I'd seriously engaged with (I'd seen about half a dozen films) and to this day I don't know what possessed me to see this obscure Taiwanese film. It was a daytime screening and I was one of only about half a dozen people in the stalls of a big old cinema palace. I was only just starting to see a handful of the classic European modernist films that I'd been reading about for years (e.g. L'Eclisse but not L'Avventura; a couple of Godards but no Resnais) and they were my only frame of reference for the film. I spent much of the time trying to keep up with the various stories, but the big cinematic effects that punctuated the film served as my reward, and I could recognise the recursive ending as a brilliant literary effect. By the time we got to the film's proper ending, I could see that what had gone before was much more artful and much less random than I'd initially thought, even though I couldn't see exactly how it all worked. The film was an important discovery for a green film fan, but not a major revelation.

That came several months later, when I managed to see the film again. For some reason, the Chinese Embassy had put together a rather meagre (four film?) mini-festival of recent cinema. This programme was singular because of the quality of the programming (to date the only local screening of Chen Kaige's Big Parade) and the mysterious inclusion of a token Taiwanese film, The Terrorizer (I don't know who OKed that at the embassy, but I assume they weren't there for long). I was keen to see it again, just to see whether its effects held up, but I was quite unprepared for the very different film I saw a second time around. Even though I could barely remember the general storyline, this time through, with some kind of unconscious foreknowledge, the film's narrative structure unfurled as a thing of transparent beauty, and the effects, when they came, were merely ornaments in a masterpiece of baroque workmanship, not the main event. Suddenly the frame, the canvas and the wallpaper were as much a work of art as the painting. To this day, it's the biggest difference I've ever experienced between first and second viewings of a film.

So, with this experience up my sleeve, when I got the chance to see Taipei Story the following year I stayed in the cinema to watch it again immediately afterwards, there being only two screenings, back to back. Exactly the same thing happened: the second viewing radically transformed and enriched the work, a perfect illustration of Nabokov's claim that you cannot read a great novel, you can only re-read it. Yang's films had a peculiar kind of narrative intelligence that no other filmmaker had to offer. The Fifth Generation films it was lined up alongside just seemed hopelessly naive in comparison.

When A Brighter Summer Day came along a couple of years later I was primed for the same ritual of repetition (even with a three-hour film), but was dismayed to find that only a single screening had been scheduled at the film festival. Hence I realised that I'd need to approach this single opportunity to view Yang's new film (at this point the extended version was not in circulation and its existence not suspected) with my full attention. I sat in the dark, furiously memorising names and character relationships, locations and spatial relationships as they raced by on screen. As the film's mind-boggling detail proliferated before my eyes, I scrabbled in my bag for pen and paper to start scribbling everything down. After doing this for three-quarters of an hour or so, I started to see the deeper narrative and thematic connections: all the intense effort I was putting into the film was being rewarded as I watched, and the more I concentrated, the more the film had to give. It was like several great movie experiences, or several sequential, evolving encounters with a great film, compressed into one, and I came out of the screening on one of the biggest highs of my life. That evening, I wrote ten pages trying to get everything down on paper (now pretty useful as my only record of the shorter cut). It was fifteen years before I got the chance to see the film again (on a relatively dodgy VCD, but of the longer cut), but much of it remained vivid in my mind's eye all that time.

Actually, looking at those ancient notes, there are patterns and details I noticed that time that I missed in my most recent viewing: the pattern of 'false deaths' that punctuate Si'r's relationship with Ming; the link between Ming's mother's smoke-aggravated asthma and Si'r's failing eyesight (via both the doctor who treats them and Mr Zhang, who gives up smoking to save up for eyeglasses for his son).

So that's enough about me. Next post, I promise, will actually be about the film.


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(Mods - I'm entering these installments as separate posts because they're so damned long, but feel free to combine them if you prefer)

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY - Story and Structure

The scope of the film is vast, but very carefully focussed. Apart from prologues and epilogues that take place in 1959 and 1961 respectively, all of the film's action occurs in 1960 within a few well-defined areas of Taiwan. Key locations (and objects) become as thoroughly established and explored as the characters.

The film incorporates nearly 40 significant characters (i.e. characters who have impact on the main plot(s)), not including a handful of off-screen characters like Professor Xia and General Ma, who influence the plot without physically appearing in the film. Only about ten of those characters are truly marginal, in the sense of fulfilling a single, specific function and then going away. The film's references to Tolstoy (Honey has been reading War and Peace while he was away, and seems to have been deeply affected by it) are entirely deliberate, and this is one of the few films I know that approaches the breadth, depth and complexity of a great novel.

Yang organises the film around the focal character of Xiao Si'r (future star of Wong Kar-wai films Chang Chen in an astonishing debut), but it's not until the end of the film that we discover what kind of focal character he is. For much of the film's duration, certainly for the gang-related material of its first two-thirds, Xiao Si'r seems relatively peripheral to the main action, so his role seems to be merely focal and observational, a way for the sprawling material to be organised. Thus A Brighter Summer Day seems to be primarily a portrait of a time and place, as observed by this particular character (who could well be revealed at the end of the film to be looking back on his childhood, for instance).

In fact, Xiao Si'r turns out to be very much the protagonist of the film, and the closing scenes demonstrate that the true subject of the film has been his growing disillusionment, the slow withdrawal of support and trust in all areas of his life that culminates in the film's tragic ending.

In retrospect, we can see the pattern of disillusionment in all four spheres of Si'r's life that the film has explored. At home, it's his father's betrayal of his principles of justice; at school, it's the ongoing unfairness of the school administration and his betrayal by best friend Ma. In the gang, it's the horror exposed in the aftermath of the massacre and the return of Sly, putting things into perspective; in romance, it's the fact that Ming turns out to be way different from his idealised vision of her. And, of course, it's the fact that so many of these injustices are entangled and thus apparently insoluble.

The disintegration of a character was also charted, in much more abbreviated form, in The Terrorizer, and it also provides the climax, in an extremely sudden and savage form, of Mahjong. In both The Terrorizer and A Brighter Summer Day, the final breakdown is precipitated by somebody trying to do the protagonist a favour: Sly's revelation is the only time in the film he's reached out to Si'r, and thus is probably his only 'positive' act in the entire film. That's the trigger, but the build-up to the breakdown is so gradual and meticulously documented that the climactic point of no return, when it comes, is appalling and surprising despite its inexorable foreshadowing. That this climax is genuinely shocking shows just how careful Yang has been in building up the characters and their world and how much we've invested in them. By rights, nothing should shock us after the chilling scene in which Si'r saves the life of Uncle Fat. Nevertheless, even a second before the tragedy strikes, we can still envisage a world of other possibilities.

So how do we get to that point? Through deceptively circuitous routes that allow the film's alternative structure (a detailed portrait of a time and place) to coexist with Xiao Si'r's subtle downward spiral. The compartmentalisation of Si'r's world (despite all the individual overlaps) provides the means by which Yang delivers verisimilitude and also creates the strong impression that we're watching several different, interrelated films simultaneously, with each story strand having its own narrative thrust, cast of characters and set of themes. Here's an attempt to summarise the main action of the film in those different arenas (This summary, to the best of my recollection, applies to both versions of the film - more on that later).

Obviously we're talking major spoilers here!

SCHOOL

Xiao Si'r and his father learn that the boy has performed poorly in one of his exams and will thus be demoted to night school the following year. In order to get back into day school, Si'r will have to ace the next set of exams, or his father will have to pull some strings.

Si'r steals a flashlight from the film studio next door to the school, and gets into trouble at school for it. His friend Cat admits his involvement. Si'r continues to get into trouble at school, often as a consequence of being bullied by gang leader Sly, who blames Si'r for spreading rumours about his relationship with Jade.

A new boy, Ma (the son of a general) comes to school and befriends and protects Si'r. He's been expelled from his previous school for attacking a fellow student with a samurai sword.

When Si'r is accused of allowing Sly to copy on a test (an incident which leads to Sly's expulsion from school), his father (Mr Zhang) intervenes and passionately defends his son against the unjust school regime, earning him a greater punishment but teaching that honour is more important ("if a man will apologise for something he hasn't done, he is capable of any kind of wickedness").

In a later disciplinary incident, after Mr Zhang has been investigated by the secret police, he behaves in a completely different, craven manner. Si'r, appalled, grabs a baseball bat and attacks the dean. He is expelled, but can still get back into day school if he does well in the end of year exams, and so devotes himself to study.

THE GANG

Xiao Si'r is connected with the Little Park Gang, as are many of his schoolfriends. The leader of the gang, Honey, is on the run after killing a member of the N17 gang, and the gang is being run by Sly and Deuce in his absence.

The night that Si'r steals the flashlight from the film studio, Sly is cornered at the school by members of the N17 gang. The N17 gang is chased off and one of their number is brutally punished. Si'r, switching lights on and off to test his failing eyesight (since starting night school, his vision has gone blurry in bright artificial light), reveals a schoolgirl fleeing one of the rooms. He is later accused by Sly of spreading rumours about him and Jade as a consequence of this 'revelation'.

Key members of the Little Park Gang and some of Si'r's friends (including Cat and Airplane) belong to a popular local band that performs rock and roll covers at the Little Park Ice Cream Parlor. Band manager Threads gets heavily in debt to the N17 gang after a disastrous pool match in which he backed Lao Er, Si'r's brother, and is pressured by N17 boss Shandong to hold a concert in N17 territory, in an auditorium owned by Sly's father.

Honey returns to find that Sly has agreed to the concert and this creates a rift in the gang. The night of the concert, Honey arrives to confront Shandong on his own. They go off into the night to discuss 'business' and Shandong pushes Honey under a passing armoured vehicle.

A reprisal is subsequently organised by Horsecart, Honey's right-hand man, in which Little Park gangsters raid Shandong's headquarters and kill everybody inside. This attack takes place during a blackout, and the massacre is revealed twice, both times by flashlight. The massacre itself is seen only in the periodic slashing beam of a flashlight, and is conveyed primarily through the soundtrack. In the aftermath, Si'r explores the carnage with his flashlight, and witnesses the return of Shandong's lover.

Both gangs are in tatters after these events, and recede from the narrative. Cat, with his frustrated falsetto, continues to plug away at that elusive lead vocal on an Elvis Presley song, and, having persuaded Si'r's sister to transcribe the lyrics of Are You Lonesome Tonight? (though she's confounded by Elvis's diction) and borrowed Ma's reel-to-reel tape recorder, puts together a demo which he sends off. At the end of the film, he takes another tape to Si'r in prison. In it, he explains that he had sent the demo to Elvis himself, and had received a gracious reply. Cat's tape is thrown out in the trash by the prison officials who receive it.

MING

Ming is the girlfriend of Little Park gang-boss-in-exile Honey. In Honey's absence, deputies Sly and Deuce are expected to preserve Ming's honour - for instance, by assaulting Tiger, who injures Ming in the course of a basketball game and (it is suggested) may be romantically interested in her.

Although Ming goes to the same school as Si'r, they don't meet until he is asked to escort her back to her class from the doctor's office after the basketball incident. Si'r is visiting the doctor to receive injections treating his failing eyesight. On their way back to class, they're 'trapped' by the school's military adviser doing his rounds. They escape over the fence, and Si'r shows Ming his 'secret place', the movie studio. They hide in the rafters. On their departure, Ming is noticed by the director and asked to come in for a screen test (he's just had a showdown with an overage ingenue).

In exchange, Ming shows Si'r her 'secret place', a military firing range. Si'r pretends to be shot. This is N17 territory (and Ming is thus an N17 girl), so Si'r is threatened by members of that gang, whom he manages to scare off.

Honey returns. Ming runs to him, but runs off again almost immediately.

Ming's mother has bad asthma and needs to convalesce, thus losing her employment and lodgings with Mrs Fang. Ming calls upon the school doctor to help with her mother's treatment, which he willingly does. They move back in with Ming's uncle until the mother can find work.

Ming and Si'r become good friends, haltingly progressing towards boyfriend / girlfriend status. They go out together with Ma and Jade. At Ma's house, Ming, playing around with a gun, shoots at Si'r but misses.

After Si'r is expelled from school, he loses contact with Ming for a while, focussing instead on his studies. When Sly returns from military service, he attempts to make up with Si'r by commiserating with him about their shared experiences with women, both of their girls (Jade and Ming) having been stolen by Ma.

Si'r realises that Ming has actually cycled through a number of lovers during the course of the film: Honey, Sly (she had been the girl in the classroom he didn't quite glimpse at the beginning of the film), the young doctor, himself and Ma. He takes a knife that Cat (in emulation of Ma) had found in the ceiling of his formerly Japanese-occupied house and goes to confront Ma.

In the marketplace, he encounters Ming, confronts her about her infidelity and points out that Ma doesn't respect her. She points out that his reductive obsession is just as disrespectful of her individuality (as had Jade, in a similar speech earlier on) and he stabs her to death in a tight embrace.

Si'r is arrested and condemned to death. Ma weeps at the loss of his best friend. Si'r being a minor, the sentence is later commuted to 15 years.

FAMILY

Xiao Si'r has three sisters and one older brother. His oldest sister is training as a teacher and helps his friends transliterate the lyrics of American songs. His middle sister is very religious. His brother Lao Er is a good friend, finding money for Si'r when he needs to replace a friend's confiscated baseball bat and taking the blame for him at the end of the film.

The family, like many people in Taipei, had relocated from Shanghai the previous decade and are struggling. Local grocer Uncle Fat is threatening to cancel their credit. Mrs Zhang does not have the necessary documentation to continue her teaching career; Mr Zhang is an underpaid public official who's just been 'rewarded' with a promotion in name only. They're both hoping that their well-connected friend Mr Wang ("Wango") can improve their situation (and that of their son Si'r - Wango is expected to intervene with the authorities to get him back into day school). In return, Mr Zhang is expected to facilitate Wango's corruption.

Mr Zhang is a man of principle, but his involvement with Wango (or his resistance to that corruption, or his former friendship with Prof. Xia, who has returned to mainland China, or even his arrogant performance at Si'r's school - we're never exactly sure) attracts the attention of the Secret Police, and he is taken away and interrogated for prolonged periods until he finally 'refines' his statement to implicate his colleagues, at which point he is silently released.

After this, Mr Zhang is a broken man, kowtowing to Si'r's teachers and violently venting his self-loathing on Lao Er, who is mistakenly accused of stealing the valuable watch that Prof. Xia had given to Mrs Zhang.

When Si'r comes across a completely drunk Uncle Fat wandering at night, he picks up a brick and prepares to smash his head in. However, Uncle Fat totters into a ditch, and nearly drowns. Si'r rescues him instead.

When Si'r is arrested and convicted for Ming's murder, the shattered family must move. The last shot is of Si'r's mother packing up clothes and, in long shot facing away from the camera , holding one of his shirts to her chest in a posture of inconsolable grief.


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Oof. This must just about be it for A Brighter Summer Day

Style and Technique

A Brighter Summer Day represents the apex of Yang's achievement, and in it he brings to bear all of the skills he'd developed over his previous films on the most complex material he'd ever tackle. His subsequent films represent wild experiments with (A Confucian Confusion and Mahjong) or refinements of (Yi Yi) the techniques he masters here.

Yang is not a particularly flashy or flamboyant director and his films don't immediately have the obvious visual signature of some auteurs. My love of his work is one of the reasons I have little patience with auteurist analyses that privilege visual style over everything else. Many of my favourite directors are as distinctive for the way they treat narrative (such as Yang and Hou) as they are for the way they frame their shots.

Hoewever, Yang does have an impeccable sense of composition and framing. Deceptively casual, or deceptively classical, mise-en-scene may be crammed with recoverable information about characters, settings and their inter-relationships. Like Hou, Yang has a sophisticated understanding of spatial relationships, and key settings in his films are carefully fleshed out from multiple angles (without resorting to anything so vulgar as establishing shots) so that alert viewers are able to recognise new views of old spaces and understand how they relate to one another. After careful viewing of The Terrorizer, for example, you could draw up a floor plan of the writer's / scientist's apartment with useful indications of 'his' and 'her' spaces (the distinction between which turns out to be dramatically significant), fixing the location of the fateful telephone and indicating where the writer hides her ashtray and cigarettes.

Yang's hyper-naturalism means that his big cinematic effects, when they come, arise organically from the material rather than being imposed as set-pieces constructed from different cloth from everything around them. The tour-de-force of this film is the N17 massacre, a black screen illuminated by occasional slashes of light. It's brilliantly conceived, another example of Yang's uncommon creativity with the soundtrack as parallel information stream, but it's also thematically and dramatically consistent. Darkness and light are key metaphors in the film (about which more below), and Taipei has been plagued by blackouts throughout the film. Seeing the film a second (third, fourth) time, there's also the delicious build-up to the climactic blackout, with lights going on and off, candles being lit and extinguished, and ominous, rain-slicked cloaked figures progressing through the darkened streets.

The celebrated (on this forum, at least) shot of Ming and Si'r's encounter reflected in a door's high-gloss paint is less obviously motivated, but it's part and parcel of Yang's crucial technique of distancing emotional content (and one of the few instances in this period film where he's able to employ his trademark of shooting actors through or in reflections), something Hou and Tsai also practice. Close-ups are rare in their films, and somewhat vulgar as a means for delivering easy emotion (you feel the appropriate emotion not because you're engaged with the characters and their situation, but because you're expected to ape their telegraphed cues), and the most emotionally fraught moments in A Brighter Summer Day tend to be offscreen (Honey's murder), obscured in shadow (the massacre and its aftermath) or presented in long shot (the film's final shot, with its key action seen from behind). There's a big exception for this film's climactic action, which is shown in a medium close-up, but this framing and blocking itself obscures the main gesture, presenting it as if it were another one.
[Reveal] Spoiler:
a stabbing is shot as if it were a romantic embrace - actually, it's both
The next shot, however, pulls right back and locates the tragic event in its social context, allowing the immediate responses of S'ir and his community to resonate much more deeply.

Although this is Yang's only period film (at this stage of their careers he and Hou were almost complementary in this regard), it explores many of the same themes of his modern-day films (one notable exception being the cost of traditional Chinese values in modern society, which figures heavily in most of his other work; the compromises of the workplace, another big theme, is somewhat muted here, but is expressed through the character of Mr Zhang). Most obvious is imperialism, with 1960 Taiwan being threatened by mainland China (and reacting with despotic paranoia against its own inhabitants); dealing with the residue of Japanese occupation (manifested physically in the form of domestic architecture and the abandoned weapons concealed within it - a rather potent metaphor, but one that's not overplayed); and bowing to American cultural imperialism (Elvis!) while kowtowing to its military might. The place of women in Chinese society is also explored, albeit in an extremely covert way (the adult women in the film - Si'r's mother and eldest sister, and Ming's mother - are all defined in large part by their drive to find employment; and Jade and Ming both deliver strikingly similar speeches to Si'r about his failure to understand a woman's needs).

The film begins with a pre-credit shot of a lightbulb being switched on, and the metaphor of light/darkness, sight/blindness, seeing/not seeing dominates the film, creating a kind of unified field theory for it. This theme / pattern is reflected in visual, thematic, character and plot terms, and it ultimately boils down to the reason for Si'r's breakdown: his despair at being unable to discern truth from lies.

The theme is manifested in, among other things, the constant blackouts; the reversal of going to school at night; the concealing darkness that allows Si'r and his friends to hide at the film studio; Si'r's failing eyesight and the switching on of electric lights that signals this; his inability to see who it is that flees from the schoolroom at the start of the film; the massacre by flashlight and Si'r's discovery of its aftermath; the lighting and extinguishing of candles; the emergence of figures and props from darkness (as when a basketball bounces ominously out of a tunnel, signalling an imminent attack); Si'r in his dark closet / bed; Si'r smashing a lightbulb at school, and so on.

The key prop of Xiao Si'r's stolen flashlight leads as lively a character arc as many of the film's human subjects, and is intimately connected with his quest for 'the truth'. It's first used to expose nocturnal lovers the night he steals it (a night in which Si'r's exposure of another pair of nocturnal lovers will prove calamitous), he uses it to read in bed and to uncover (for him and for us) the ghastly consequences of the N17 massacre. At the end of the film, when he realises that everything important about his life (his father's principles, Ming's love, his friends' loyalty) has been a sham, one of his last acts is to return the flashlight to the film studio from where he stole it.

As in most of Yang's films, objects matter. There are several such significant props with their own stories that one can follow through the film's dense narrative: the Zhang family radio; Ma's samurai sword; Cat's knife; Mrs Zhang's watch. They're not sentimentalised or charged with easy symbolism: they're as functional within the plot as the characters they accompany, and following their trajectories - and the same applies for secondary characters - provides different, revealing perspectives on this incredibly rich film.


The Two Versions

My understanding of the two versions of the film is that Yang's original cut was the four-hour one, but that he was pressured to reduce it to 185 minutes by his producers. This is the version that was first circulated to festivals and initially released in Taiwan. A little later on, the full-length version was released on the festival circuit. I don't know if it got a proper commercial release in any territories (France maybe? I don't think the film ever had a commercial release in any English language country, in whatever version).

What's remarkable about the shorter cut is that it omits very little of the film's narrative, so it's actually an even more remarkable example of Yang's narrative compression than the full-length version. Somebody with access to the shorter version (e.g. Colin) can correct me if I'm wrong, but one possible instance of more oblique storytelling in the shorter cut comes with Ming and her mother's return to her uncle's home in an ex-army barracks. In the earlier scene on the firing range, Ming explains to Si'r that she knows the place because she used to live nearby. When we subsequently find ourselves at Ming's place, the familiar sound of gunfire can be heard in the background, thus signalling where we are and that Ming and her mother have been forced to return to this crowded shared home after the mother's asthma attack. In the longer cut (and not in the shorter?) there's an intermediary scene in which Ming and her mother return to the barracks and their dilemma is spelt out more clearly.

I can't think of many significant plot events that are omitted entirely from the short version (does it include Si'r's rescue of Uncle Fat?), but I have the impression that the weight given to different parts of the film could be different. My (possibly faulty) memory of the 3 hour cut was that the massacre of the N17 gang was the centrepiece of the film and that most of the second half dealt with the post-gang storylines (Ming, Ma, Mr Zhang's incarceration). In the long version, Honey's murder comes at the film's mid-point, and the retaliatory massacre doesn't occur until late in the third hour.

The long version is clearly superior, but the increased economy of the shorter version offers excellent insight into Yang's filmmaking method. [wishful thinking]The ideal DVD release would include both versions for comparison.[/wishful thinking]


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2008 11:43 pm 
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Sorry to interrupt zedz's excellent posts with this, but I thought it would be pertinent info for anyone interested in a half-way decent stop-gap DVD of A Brighter Summer Day who hasn't acted yet: Supper Happy Fun (which offers a Laser Disc-ripped 2 DVD-R set of the [I believe] long cut of the movie) is shutting down come August 31, but they're still taking/filling orders until then. I had been mulling ordering it for a long while, but after reading zedz's analysis of the film (and finding out about SHF's shutting down), I simply cannot wait for another screening/official release which may or may not ever come to see the movie again.


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Fantastic analysis. Having only had access to the shorter version of Brighter Summer Day (which I sometimes think would be well titled as The Girl, The Gold Watch And Everything!) and (of course) Yi Yi (I'm still kicking myself over missing a television screening of The Terrorizer from the mid-90s), it is great to see how they fit in with the rest of Edward Yang's work. I'll post some captures but I was struck while taking them at how poor my VHS looks - hopefully this may inspire someone, somewhere to release his work on DVD where it can be more properly appreciated.

One of the things I was most impressed by was, as zedz has said in relation to a number of Yang's films, the sheer economy with which he expresses his themes. Taking as an example the lightbulb being turned on during the opening credits, the screen goes from darkness to light then fades out to red within a few seconds, suggesting the way that the sudden change can temporarily dazzle the viewer. On repeat viewings it resonates with Si'r's character, suggesting his role as a 'viewer' through whose eyes the action is seen, but also suggests that this dazzlement can throw us off balance and blind us to the 'truth'. In one, not even thirty second, shot leading into the credit sequence we've had the psychology of our main character and the darkness and light theme that will be the most important elements of the film lightly introduced.

Image

There are a lot of pairings in the film, though often with the major locations the film goes beyond just 'set up' and 'pay off' to suggest interesting through lines of linkages. For example the early school raid performed in darkness with an almost school bully-ish beating of one captured kid compares to the the more adult attack on the gang's pool room and restaurant later in the film. In a way it is still teenage attitude (we'll see later that adults have moved beyond using weapons to destroy others - the pen truly does prove itself mightier than the sword) with the use of samurai swords suggesting the children are trying to emulate the grown ups or get some transference of their powers by using their found weapons. They are now playing with dangerous weapons through which along with the darkness and the element of surprise (compared to Honey's lack of violence which seemed to hold the gang in check even during his absences his death lets the more violent gang members dictate a response which the N17 gang couldn't have expected. In fact the action of their leader, Shangdong, in pushing Honey under the truck smacks of a childishly impulsive action compared to the way the real kids plan their violent retaliation) devastates the older gang. This theme of dangerous weapons being introduced, and heightening the stakes of, conflicts then finds expression in Ma showing Si'r how to shoot (which gets a linkage with the real and fake theme through the transition into the 'fake' world of the sound of gunshots in a Western playing at the local cinema), Ming's casual gunplay and of course Si'r's use of Cat's knife at the end of the film which are linked together through placing the one you care for in unintended mortal danger, one ending in lucky escape, the other devastating lives and families.

Here's the brief shot of the girl, later revealed to be Ming, running off as soon as Si'r turns the classroom lights on from the early school sequence:

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Another example of a brief glimpse causing trouble and confusion - the supposedly illuminating light has dazzled once again, though it will take a while for this to become apparent.

Sly confronts Si'r, though early in the film it seems more likely that it is over the couple revealed canoodling in the school gardens than the girl running from the classroom. Interestingly while all these briefly glimpsed characters remain known and unknown at one and the same time (because they deny their involvement), Si'r actually reveals his presence which causes various characters (most notably Jade in her final speech in the school bleachers at night, where she symbolically locks Si'r in the grounds to maybe prevent him from causing any more mischief with his torch) to blame him for spreading rumours about them around the school:

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While this is going on we get the equation with adult gangs and old boy clubs:

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The first meeting between Si'r and Ming at the infirmary and an early example of choosing not to play the relationship through the character's faces:

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The fake actress, compared to Ming's 'naturalism' and greater suitability for the role the director is casting:

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The rifle range. "If I were a boy I'd join up. Why are you guys all afraid of the army?" "We don't want to die!"

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There is a beautiful image in this scene of an extreme long shot of the troops spread out across the field on manoeuvres coming together in ranks as a vehicle, most likely with a high ranking official, approaches.

Ma, the transfer student with the samurai sword found in the attic of his Japanese house:

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Ming and Si'r's diffuse relationship at the infirmary:

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The return of Honey:

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War and Peace as a gang novel. An interesting thematic linkage later emerges between gang leader Honey and Si'r's religious middle sister:

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The confrontation at the dance:

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A move from darkness to light. "I'll always be with you. I'll be your friend for ever.":

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The aftermath of the pool hall massacre. Shandong's end in the beam of Si'r's enquiring torch:

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Return to family, music again foreshadowing disruption:

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Interrogator as frustrated lounge singer:

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Stick 'em up, punk! Part 1:

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The Kagemusha-esque ice-breaking hat:

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Post-interrogation analysis:

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Stick 'em up, punk! Part 2:

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Architecture mirroring the character's inner turmoil:

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Significant objects:

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Famous last words:

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Aftermath:

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zedz wrote:
What’s remarkable about the shorter cut is that it omits very little of the film’s narrative, so it’s actually an even more remarkable example of Yang’s narrative compression than the full-length version. Somebody with access to the shorter version (e.g. Colin) can correct me if I’m wrong, but one possible instance of more oblique storytelling in the shorter cut comes with Ming and her mother’s return to her uncle’s home in an ex-army barracks. In the earlier scene on the firing range, Ming explains to Si’r that she knows the place because she used to live nearby. When we subsequently find ourselves at Ming’s place, the familiar sound of gunfire can be heard in the background, thus signalling where we are and that Ming and her mother have been forced to return to this crowded shared home after the mother’s asthma attack. In the longer cut (and not in the shorter?) there’s an intermediary scene in which Ming and her mother return to the barracks and their dilemma is spelt out more clearly.

I can’t think of many significant plot events that are omitted entirely from the short version (does it include Si’r’s rescue of Uncle Fat?), but I have the impression that the weight given to different parts of the film could be different. My (possibly faulty) memory of the 3 hour cut was that the massacre of the N17 gang was the centrepiece of the film and that most of the second half dealt with the post-gang storylines (Ming, Ma, Mr Zhang’s incarceration). In the long version, Honey’s murder comes at the film’s mid-point, and the retaliatory massacre doesn’t occur until late in the third hour.

The long version is clearly superior, but the increased economy of the shorter version offers excellent insight into Yang’s filmmaking method. [wishful thinking]The ideal DVD release would include both versions for comparison.[/wishful thinking]

Yes, Ming and her mother moving in with their family is treated in extremely elliptical manner in the shorter version. In fact apart from a couple of lines from a relative complaining about them returning to the family home there is little in the shorter version to suggest where they have moved to. Was there a scene where the landlady throws them out, because there is no suggestion in the short version that the landlady gets rid of them and it had always led me to believe that they moved in with relatives purely due to the mother's illness requiring round the clock care.

Uncle Fat doesn't really appear in the short version at all, only making a brief appearance berating Mr Zhang as he and Si'r are making their second walk from the school after Si'r's expulsion.

The timeline seems only a little different in the short version from the way you describe the longer one. Honey dies at the half way mark and the N17 gang massacre comes two thirds of the way through the short version (1hr 50mins in). While I like the structure of the school/gang/family sections each taking centre stage during each hour of screen time of the short version, I'm sure that the longer version would be the one to see if we had to choose, just because some of the action seems a little too cut down at times.

There also is no mention of any sentence Si'r receives for the murder in the short version, in some ways making the ending even bleaker.


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 12, 2008 8:57 pm 
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Fantastic, Colin! Thanks for the caps.

colinr0380 wrote:
One of the things I was most impressed by was, as zedz has said in relation to a number of Yang's films, the sheer economy with which he expresses his themes. Taking as an example the lightbulb being turned on during the opening credits, the screen goes from darkness to light then fades out to red within a few seconds, suggesting the way that the sudden change can temporarily dazzle the viewer.

I realize that this also closely replicates Si'r's eyesight problems as he describes them in the film (when he switches on the light, his vision gets blurry), so it's also an extremely subtle way of signalling to a return viewer that the entire film is framed subjectively.

Quote:
This theme of dangerous weapons being introduced, and heightening the stakes of, conflicts then finds expression in Ma showing Si'r how to shoot (which gets a linkage with the real and fake theme through the transition into the 'fake' world of the sound of gunshots in a Western playing at the local cinema), Ming's casual gunplay and of course Si'r's use of Cat's knife at the end of the film which are linked together through placing the one you care for in unintended mortal danger, one ending in lucky escape, the other devastating lives and families.

The theme of small (and not so small) actions having unintended consequences is a big theme for Yang, with The Terrorizer and Yi Yi being major explorations of this, but that sense of inexorable escalation in A Brighter Summer Day is slightly different from the fractal magnification of 'insignificant' actions in those films, and it's superbly orchestrated.

Quote:
Sly confronts Si'r, though early in the film it seems more likely that it is over the couple revealed canoodling in the school gardens than the girl running from the classroom.

That's the strong impression I had after viewing the short version, but it seems to be much less ambiguous in the long version (or maybe that's just because I know how it works out now). I have no idea what editorial choices could have impacted on this (mis)reading, but it's interesting to see that we shared it.

Quote:
While this is going on we get the equation with adult gangs and old boy clubs:
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Possibly sowing the seeds for Mahjong, which is much more explicit in its equation of the business and gangster worlds.

Quote:
The return of Honey:
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This reminds me that Honey's incongruous sailor suit is a stroke of genius, reinforcing the sense that he really does belong to a completely different world, like he's stepped out of a Jacques Demy film or something.

Quote:
Significant objects:
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Ah, I forgot the mysterious Japanese woman (another potential 'off-screen character'). Nice catch.

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In the long version, this shot plays out before the (white on black) credits roll.

Quote:
Yes, Ming and her mother moving in with their family is treated in extremely elliptical manner in the shorter version. In fact apart from a couple of lines from a relative complaining about them returning to the family home there is little in the shorter version to suggest where they have moved to.

In the short version, the rifle range heard in the background of this scene carries much more narrative weight (linking it back to Ming's earlier throwaway line) than in the long version.

Quote:
Was there a scene where the landlady throws them out, because there is no suggestion in the short version that the landlady gets rid of them and it had always led me to believe that they moved in with relatives purely due to the mother's illness requiring round the clock care.

In the long version, we meet Mrs Fang (previous employer and landlady) when Ming's mother is rushed to the doctor, and she is genuinely concerned (Ming runs to her for help, which she readily gives). From this brief scene, I doubt she's the instigator of the move. There's an intermediate scene shortly after Ming and her mother return to the uncle's barracks in which she explains that she could no longer work for Mrs Fang because of her illness and apologizes for imposing themselves on the family again, but they had nowhere else to go. Ming's mother seems vaguely annoyed at the uncle's resentment, pointing out that he knows they'll move out again as soon as she's well enough to go back to work (something which eventuates at the end of the film). In this scene there's also a pan or track that establishes just how many people are living in the barracks (lots of kids), so - typically for Yang - we get to understand even this minor plot point from multiple perspectives.

Quote:
Uncle Fat doesn't really appear in the short version at all, only making a brief appearance berating Mr Zhang as he and Si'r are making their second walk from the school after Si'r's expulsion.

It's not exactly a central plot strand, but this elision might well be the most significant difference between the two versions, especially in the way it anticipates / plays off the film's climax.

Quote:
The timeline seems only a little different in the short version from the way you describe the longer one. Honey dies at the half way mark and the N17 gang massacre comes two thirds of the way through the short version (1hr 50mins in).

Thanks. This chimes with my recollection, in which those two events seemed to be much more closely linked. In the long version, there's a good three quarters of an hour of running time between them (so it sounds like that stretch would be a useful place too look for excised material).


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2008 6:54 am 

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Does the SuperHappyFun DVD of a Brighter Summer Day have both subtitles, English and Chinese together on screen (like on this excerpt on Youtube) or is there an option to pick the English subs only?

Thank you very much


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2008 9:04 pm 
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The Super Happy Fun DVDs have the dual Chinese/English subs. It's a real rough go with those.


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PerfectDepth wrote:
The Super Happy Fun DVDs have the dual Chinese/English subs. It's a real rough go with those.

I assume these are simply rips of the old dual-subbed (HK?) VCD releases.


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I can't remember if there was any "VCD Pixelation" present on the SHF DVDs and I lent them to someone who never returned them.

Their website claims the original source was a laser disc.


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PerfectDepth wrote:
I can't remember if there was any "VCD Pixelation" present on the SHF DVDs and I lent them to someone who never returned them.

Their website claims the original source was a laser disc.

Well, I never ran across the laser disc versions -- did they really have burnt-in dual subbing (just like the VCDs)?


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PostPosted: Thu Aug 14, 2008 6:31 pm 
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A CONFUCIAN CONFUSION

I didn't get the chance to see this or Mahjong until a couple of years ago (thanks to the generosity of a forum member), and given the greatness of A Brighter Summer Day, it was one of the sorest lacks in my filmgoing experience. The word on the film was "it's not as good as A Brighter Summer Day", but that's an insanely vague description, and could conceal something very great indeed. Even a film only half as good would be a must-see.

When I finally did see it, I understood the general lack of enthusiasm. It's a dazzlingly constructed film. In fact, it's probably Yang's most overtly 'constructed' film, assembled within an inch of its life like a Preston Sturges film on steroids. The world explored is movie-ish and hermetic, with everybody knowing one another - interactions being restricted to a large but defined clique (as opposed to the sprawl and expansiveness of his previous two films) - and the plot being fuelled by multi-levelled ironies (just look at how Qiqi's dimples are resented by some yet provide a life-saving epiphany for another). The film's criss-crossing storylines are so outrageously, even parodically, complicated that it might all be one big technical exercise: how much coherent plot can you cram into a two-hour film without recourse to conventional exposition?

It was somewhat off-outting to see such heavyweight craft applied to such lightweight material, a satirical comedy on Taipei's culture of business and business of culture (in this film, even the personal relationships are modelled on corporate mergers, or hostile takeovers). The film's overt theme, alluded to in the film;s title, which Yang elaborated as Asia's "serious cultural problem. . . trying to head into the 21st century with a 4th century BC ideology", seemed a little muddled to me, and this idea seemed much better expressed in Taipei Story and Yi Yi (and even in the bipolar Mahjong).

It was an impressive but ultimately hollow experience. The cast is expansive, the plotlines dense and deviously arranged, but the situations (the multiple intrigues of, among many others, a brisk businesswoman, her put-upon PA, a populist playwright and a reclusive writer) are pitched at a level of near-hysteria, with the headlong pace of screwball comedy. When the film slows down and calms down towards the end, there are moments of surprising emotional power, but the whole didn't seem particularly coherent.

However, I should have known not to judge a Yang film on a single viewing. A second time through didn't resolve all of the issues I had with it, but the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking (little touches like the unconscious Chaplin mimicry when Akeem complains about his "loneliness"; the smart staging of the confrontation in Birdy's studio) and its pacing / rhythm, quite unlike any of his previous films, started to win me over. The film is punctuated by intertitles usually comprising a sliver of dialogue from the forthcoming scenes (e.g. "In this Utopia where everybody thinks alike. . ."; "Why are you suddenly taking me to lunch?"; "Luckily, there's someone even worse"). Sometimes these signal a brief break in the narrative, sometimes they interrupt continuous scenes. In one case, towards the end, there's even an 'empty' intertitle, a black screen seguing from the close of one fraught night to the cold dawn of the next day (as with the other intertitles, the soundtrack continues underneath, finishing off the previous scene or starting up the next one). On this second viewing, I also started to see just how intricately the culture of business / business of culture theme was interwoven into the narrative. Practically every character illuminates an aspect of the issue.

Third time through, and first time on a big screen, the difference was even more remarkable. With a small, appreciative audience, I realised for the first time just how well the film worked as a comedy (the film begins with the suggestion that Taipei itself could be considered a 'post-modern comedy', and that's a pretty good indication of where Yang is going), so fast and dexterous that different sectors of the audience were laughing at different times and on different levels (there's physical comedy, character comedy, verbal comedy and structural comedy). Those intertitles also have a strong comic function, occasionally being funny in their own right, but also providing a weird kind of comic timing: we know the phrase or reference will appear somewhere in the forthcoming scenes, but we have no idea whether it will be a punchline or a throwaway, or whether the context will provide an unexpected twist.

The film's structure and ideas also became even more cohesive and impressive. On my measly VCD, the subtitles for a key early scene between Molly and Larry were all but obliterated by the reflected sky on Molly's desktop. Seeing it properly, this conversation sets up many of the film's concerns relating to the 'Confucian Confusion' theme (the problem of applying Chinese traditional values and thinking to contemporary life), and that theme started to blossom as a consequence. Again, it's very carefully woven into the film, with different characters responsible for illuminating different aspects of the problem. Molly's brother-in-law takes it to its most absurd lengths, seeing himself as some kind of prophet or modern-day Confucius and arriving at some kind of artistic / personal crisis as a result.

Once you get your bearings, the film is able to settle down into a variety of identities. On one level it's a satire on business and art; on another it's a Rivettian self-reflexive examination of performance and theatre; on a third it's an amped-up relationship film, with the plot expertly finessed to provide every major character with a substitute (or threatened substitute) lover. Just looking at the way relationships are flipped or twisted throughout the film, much more complicated than the traditional options of wife-swapping or 'la ronde', gives an idea of the glee with which Yang maps out intersecting character trajectories. In this mode, the film is a kind of wild mish-mash of Eric Rohmer and Tex Avery.

Here's a precis of how the complex choreography of romantic realignment (or threatened realignement) operates: Molly shifts attention from Akeem to Ming (while it's thought that she's really interested in Birdy); Ming shifts attention from Qiqi to Feng; Feng shifts attention from Larry to Ming to Birdy; Larry shifts his attention from Feng to Molly; Birdy shifts attention from the actress du jour to Feng; Akeem shifts attention from Molly to Birdy's assistant; Birdy's assistant shifts attention from Birdy to Akeem; Molly's sister shifts attention from her author husband to Akeem; her husband shifts attention from Molly's sister to Qiqi; Qiqi shifts attention from Ming to the author. There's probably a lot more going on romantically that I don't remember.

After all this shenanigans, the film's sweet, graceful punchline involves one particular couple swimming against the tide and hanging on amidst the chaos surrounding them.

I'm also very interested in how Yang codifies his large cast according to how they're named. There's such a range of naming practices at play, and they seem to be deployed with such a degree of consistency, that they deserve some attention.

Some of the characters in the film are known only by their Chinese first name (Qiqi, Feng, Liren); some only by their Anglicised names (Molly, Larry); some are known by nicknames (Birdy, Chief, Second Auntie); some major characters are unnamed, and referred to only in terms of their relationships (Molly's sister and brother-in-law, Birdy's assistant). Only one character, Ming, reveals his full name (Wang Xiaoming), when he answers a phone. Possibly related to this is the fact that Ming is also the only character whose parents and extended family feature in the film. The withholding of the names of Molly's sister and brother-in-law is sort of pointed, as they are both public figures (a talk-show host and a successful author), so Yang has to contrive, for example, that none of the extracts from the sister's show include introductions, credits or captions, and that we never get too close a glimpse of the brother-in-law's books. Some of the name-links (e.g. Molly and Larry's English names) seem to tease us with the possibility of a connection between the characters, and the plot follows suit. In other cases, the positional ambiguity of a designation (i.e. 'Birdy's assistant') can also reflect a function of the plot, as when Akeem falls in love with said assistant on the strength of somebody else's phone voice, on the assumption that the person who answers Birdy's phone for him is 'Birdy's assistant'.

This actually prompts me to think a little more about A Brighter Summer Day's naming practice. The majority of characters in that film are known only by nicknames, and in a couple of places we learn that Xiao Si'r's real name is Zhang Zhen (eerily close to the name of the actor portraying him). So can anybody shed some light on what Xiao Si'r means, or what its status is? Even though his brother is called Lao Er by everybody, including family, in the early scene at Shandong's we learn that "Lao Er" is, apparently, slang for "Prick". So is this an unfortunate nickname or an unfortunate coincidence? Is there some kind of subtle intonation gag that we're missing here?


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